With the excitement of the Winter Olympics upon us (and after the single best Winter Olympic medal day in Australian History!), you can see that for many of the events balance is a critical component. Great balance requires a mixture of different skills that we will delve into in further detail below.
- First and foremost, balance requires razor sharp reflexes from the muscles that surround the joints – especially those around the hips and ankles. This comes initially from mastering static (or still) positions such as standing on one leg or standing heel to toe. Aim for 10-15 seconds in each position every day. Remember that while practice won’t make perfect, your balance will certainly improve over time.
- When you can stand in the 2 positions described above for at least 10 seconds on each leg, it is time to challenge the system further and remove the reliance most people have on their vision to stay balanced. If you have ever tried to stand on one leg and closed your eyes, you will have most likely experienced a big change in how steady you feel and the amount that you wobble. This is usually a big step to take to advance balance exercises, so before closing your eyes it is best that you try gently turning your head to the side instead as this will distract your vision but not completely take it away!
- While the above examples are aimed at developing static balance, it is also important to be able to stay balanced as we move (dynamic). Many falls occur when we are moving as opposed to when we are standing still. Control of balance while moving requires a more complex and coordinated effort between the position sensing systems in the body, and the muscles and connective tissues that produce movement. One of the most common exercises used to train dynamic balance is heel to toe walking along a line. This is best done next to a wall or in a corridor to ensure that you are safe. It is also important to train your side to side balance, which can be achieved by performing a movement similar to the grapevine dance move.
- One of the most simple and overlooked aspects of balance is the strength of the muscles around the joints. Good balance requires the strength of the leg, hip and trunk muscles. Some examples of exercises to build strength in these areas include calf raises, lunges, chair squats, reverse lowers on a chair and hip bridges. Strengthening exercises should be performed every 2-3 days for maximum benefit.
- Another important aspect is good joint movement or flexibility. To be able to react and accomodate different changes in position, the joints need to have the freedom to move throughout their normal range without restriction. This is especially important for the spine, hips and ankles. Some examples of simple exercises to keep these areas mobile include side to side spine bends, standing hip circles and ankle circles. Like balance exercises, joint mobility exercises can be performed daily for best effect.
- Finally, good balance comes from being adaptable to the changes in surface we encounter day to day. Each walking surface presents it’s own challenges, between unexpected lips on pavements and uneven ovals and grassed areas. The simplest starting point for training this adaptability is by performing the balance exercises described in point 1 on top of an unstable surface such as a light cushion or pillow. It is important to make sure you can hold these positions for at least 10 seconds on a steady surface before attempting them on a pillow or cushion.